We drove to Kailua on Sunday to see the new Whole Foods store. We walked through once soon after the store opened, but hadn’t really had a chance to shop.
We saw it, but couldn’t find parking. It was amazingly busy. Driving endlessly around a full parking lot praying to be the first to spot someone leaving is just about my definition of Hell. I broke before finding a spot, and drove over to the adjacent parking area in front of Foodland.
The Kailua Foodland has been our more “upscale” place to shop, way better in terms of products and display than our regular Foodland that anchors the Windward City Shopping Center back in Kaneohe. Today it was different. Whole Foods seemed to have sucked the oxygen out of the place. It was almost empty. Very few shoppers. If customers don’t return to Foodland after the Whole Foods novelty wears off, that store is going to be in trouble. And with Safeway just down the street competing for the “less than Whole Foods” market, it could be brutal competition.
We detoured to Kailua on our drive home Thursday afternoon and this time easily found parking at Whole Foods. The store certainly does set a new standard in displays, selection, range of organic, nitrate-free, and other healthy choices, marketing (store samples seemed to be succeeding in moving products), etc. We immediately saw the Whole Foods attack on the local myth that everyone is happy with squishy bread, the kind that allows you to mash an entire loaf into a lump the size of a golf ball. WF offers an amazing array of bread choices, both locally baked and those shipped in from the mainland. And why did it take a mainland chain to bring so many great local products to consumers, and one with only a handful of Hawaii stores? Prices are generally higher than the local norm, and, from the full parking lot and crowded aisles, it appears people are willing to pay the difference to get the increased choice and better products.
Local supermarkets, like local government, have been pretty conservative. Product choices are generally limited. Meda has taken to calling the wall of bread in the Kaneohe Safeway store the “Communist bread market” because of the very limited range of mediocre breads presented as if offering real variety. The general assumption is that products and choices just need to be “good enough” to please consumers, so local stores haven’t set their targets any higher, instead assuming we all want the cheapest prices at the expense of the best products, and marketing pushes people in that direction. Competition ends up being primarily on price.
We’ve been watching Safeway and Foodland slowly ramp up for the Whole Foods competition on the Windward side over the last year, adding a few new organic products and shuffling displays in their stores. But it looks like too little, too late.
This morning, on our daily walk at dawn, we asked several younger generation friends what they think about Whole Foods. Local, haole, didn’t make a difference. All said they “love” Whole Foods and just wish there was one in Kaneohe.
Whole Foods challenges the whole local paradigm. And we’re seeing that consumers want good food, increased diversity, healthy choices, and are willing to pay for it all. It’s not just a grocery store, it’s kind of an experience. And that’s not just in Hawaii. The company’s stock is at an all-time high, and rising, so this is going on elsewhere as well.
One of these days we’re going to get a political personality or party that brings the same kind of challenge to our little choice, conservative bias politics. And when that happens, I expect local residents will respond similarly.